Why archive queer feminist sex zines?

This is the second of two posts by CSI Librarian Alana Kumbier, reporting on her summer research residency at the Queer Zine Archive Project.

As I mentioned in the first post about my residency, when I arrived at the Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP), I didn’t have a research plan. On my first day, I started browsing through the zines that Larry-Bob Roberts, publisher of the zines Holy Titclamps and Queer Zine Explosion, donated to QZAP. In the file drawer dedicated to Roberts’ collection, I found issues of the zines I’d spend most of my time with during the residency: Brat Attack (a lesbian S/M zine), Lezzie SMUT (a lesbian sex zine), and Logomotive (a bisexual sex zine). These zines, while distinct, were all produced by small collectives of volunteers; combined feminist politics and erotics; and regularly published contributions by readers. Most of them also featured similar genres of content: letters to the editor, features, how-to/d.i.y. articles, comics, ads, and resource lists. Lezzie SMUT and Logomotive also included black-and-white photo essays, erotic fiction and poetry.

Lite-Brite board displaying the word "Zines" and a pink triangle, on display at QZAP.
QZAP is the best-decorated archive I’ve ever visited. Photo by the author, CC BY-NC 3.0.

As I looked over these zines, I discerned my broad research question for the week: why should archives collect and preserve sex zines like these? What might readers and researchers learn by spending time with them? As I read through the issues at QZAP, I identified a bunch of avenues for research that piqued my curiosity. These are just a few examples of those:

Censorship: Throughout its publication history in the 1990s, Lezzie SMUT was targeted – along with other sexually explicit materials created by and for gay and lesbian audiences – for confiscation at the U.S./Canada border, under customs’ enforcement of Canadian pornography laws (see, for context, the text of R v. Butler in 1992, and this article by Lara Karain). Lezzie SMUT’s editors and contributors documented their struggles with state censorship across the issues of the zine, in editorials across issues and a feature article in the inaugural issue. The editors widened their scope in future issues, charting the seizure, detention or prohibition of other titles at the border, including Black Sheets, The Sexual Politics of Meat, Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist, and Brat Attack (Issue 6, p. 28). The fifth issue of Brat Attack also features a collage of official documents showing that Issue 4 was detained at the Canadian border, and that two U.S. prisons refused prisoners’ access to the zine.

Access: More generally, reading these zines provided some clues about where and how readers accessed the publications – specifically, where they were sold. The third issue of Logomotive features a full-page list of all of the stores that stocked the zine in the US, Canada and Australia. If you’d lived in Amherst in the early 1990s, you could’ve picked up a copy at Food For Thought Books or the Jeffrey Amherst College Store. I loved reading these lists in all of the zines, because they gave me a partial sense of the geographic reach of the titles, suggesting spots, like San Francisco, where LBTQ women’s zine and print cultures were thriving, and places where one might not expect to find a bisexual sex zine (like Freddy’s Feed & Read in Missoula, MT).

Negotiating intersectionality: All of these zines published articles about the intersections of lesbian or bisexual sexuality with other aspects of embodiment and experience. These articles help us understand how participants in the scenes from which the zines emerged were thinking about, negotiating, and voicing experiences around difference within lesbian and bisexual subcultures. Brat Attack is particularly great in this way, with articles on body size and fatness in S/M (Issue 1) and the experiences of working class dykes and FTM folks (Issue 3). Issue Five features stories about transwomen in dyke communities, dyke life in prison, race in the S/M community, and butch identity.

Doing the work: All three zines were run by small editorial collectives, publishing in print runs from the hundreds to thousands. As I read, I wondered what sustained their work when they existed, and what led to their demise? In a column titled “We Made Some Mistakes Along the Way…” in Issue 3 of Lezzie SMUT, the editors describe just one of the challenges they encountered in trying to publish, writing that “We had some problems getting Issue Two printed, finding a printer who was inexpensive enough and who was supportive of the sexually explicit/dyke content. We ended up having to do a lot of the collating and stapling ourselves, having counted on a printing deal which did not materialize. […] Suffice it to say that we were given a sharp reminder of the homophobia that exists all around us, and of the difficulty of finding a queer-positive printer that hasn’t gone bankrupt” (2). Reading acknowledgements and thank-you lists, and calls for contributions, financial support, and volunteer help in all of the zines, it’s clear that they were labors of love which wouldn’t have existed without significant collective support and which survived due to a ton of unpaid work by small editorial teams.

Representation: Perhaps the most important reason to collect feminist, queer sex zines – and other sexually-explicit material created by LGBTQ folks – has to do with historical representation and empowered narratives in archives (Shilton & Srinivasan 2007, 90).  In his article on the archival value of gay male pornography, Marcel Barriault reminds us that these materials offer a counter-history to dominant representations of LGBTQ people in state and institutional archives. In these contexts, LGBTQ people have historically been documented as subjects of state surveillance, regulation, or pathologization (when they appear in the records at all). Part of what I love about the sex zines I read at QZAP is that they are primary sources created by the people whose history the archive preserves – the collections are by queer folks, not just records of or about us.

Like feminist porn* more generally, these zines are a medium through which their editors and contributors shared work they valued and ideas they wanted to celebrate (or challenge, question, or resist). Their contents show us something about their contributors’ and readers’ desires and turn-ons. In their pages, we can catch a glimpse of 1990s dyke, queer punk, bi and leatherdyke styles – and note the ways in which the zines, themselves, were challenging community norms. And, thanks to their editors’ commitments to dialog, we can read letters to the editor, and learn about how lesbian, bi, trans and queer women were articulating their identities and their concerns in print, and how they were recognized and connected with a larger public as the zines circulated.

If you’d like to check out issues of Lezzie SMUT and Brat Attack for yourself, you can do so at the Sophia Smith Collection in the Smith College Archives. Issues of these zines are part of the Girl Zines Collection. They are not part of QZAP’s digitized collection, for reasons related to those outlined in the Zine Librarians Code of Ethics, as well as in Tara Robertson’s posts on the ethics of digitization of lesbian porn from the 1990s, here and here.


*For a good overview of what falls under the umbrella of “feminist porn,” check out these guidelines from the Feminist Porn Awards, which I learned about in the article “This is Not a Love Story: Libraries and Feminist Porn” by Lisa Sloniowski.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *